Explained: Who is Devasahayam, the first Indian layman to be conferred sainthood?

Devashyam is said to have faced harsh persecution and imprisonment after he decided to convert to Christianity, ultimately resulting in his killing in 1752.

A Hindu man from Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu, who converted to Christianity in the 18th century, is set to become the first Indian layman to be declared a saint by the Vatican on May 15, 2022. Devashyam Pillai, who took the name ‘Lazarus’ in 1745, was first approved for sainthood in February 2020 for “enduring increasing hardships” after he decided to embrace Christianity, the Vatican said.

Devashyam is said to have faced harsh persecution and imprisonment after he decided to convert to Christianity, ultimately resulting in his killing in 1752. While he was declared eligible for sainthood last year, the Vatican announced the date of the ceremony on Tuesday.

So, what do we know about Devasahayam Pillai?

Born on April 23, 1712 in the village of Nattalam in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari District, Devashyam went on to serve in the court of Travancore’s Maharaja Marthanda Varma. It was here that he met a Dutch naval commander, who taught him about the Catholic faith.

In 1745, soon after he was baptised, he assumed the name ‘Lazarus’, meaning ‘God is my help’. But he then faced the wrath of the Travancore state, which was against his conversion.

“His conversion did not go well with the heads of his native religion. False charges of treason and espionage were brought against him and he was divested of his post in the royal administration,” a note issued by the Vatican in February 2020 read. He was imprisoned and subjected to harsh persecution.

“While preaching, he particularly insisted on the equality of all people, despite caste differences. This aroused the hatred of the higher classes, and he was arrested in 1749,” the Vatican stated.

On January 14, 1752, just seven years after he became a Catholic, Devashyam was shot dead in the Aralvaimozhy forest. Since then, he has widely been considered a martyr by the Catholic community in South India. His body is now at Saint Francis Xavier Cathedral in the Diocese of Kottar.

Why was he approved for sainthood?

In 2004, the diocese of Kottar in Kanyakumari, along with the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council (TNBC) and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI) recommended Devasahayam for beatification to the Vatican. In February, last year, the Vatican declared that he was eligible for sainthood.

He was declared blessed by the Kottar diocese in 2012, 300 years after his birth. “In remarks that day during the midday ‘Angelus’ prayer in the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI recalled Devasahayam as ‘faithful layman’. He urged Christians to “join in the joy of the Church in India and pray that the new Blessed may sustain the faith of the Christians of that large and noble country,” the note from the Vatican stated.

What was the controversy surrounding his name?

Devashyam’s ascent to sainthood was not without controversy. In 2017, two former IAS officers wrote to Cardinal Angelo Amato, who was then the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, urging them to drop Devashyam’s last name ‘Pillai’ as it was a caste title. However at the time, the Vatican declined their request.

It was only in February 2020, when the Vatican cleared him for sainthood, that they dropped ‘Pillai’ from his name, referring to him as ‘Blessed Devashyam’.

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